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Zrinka Mikelić (piano), St Giles Church, Cripplegate, Barbican (MA)


Zrinka Mikelić, born in 1974 in Split, in Croatia, has been based in London since she moved there to study in 1993 (initially with Hamish Milne and Christopher Elton at the Royal Academy of Music, latterly privately with Sulamita Aronovsky). Oddly, she hasn’t yet made the mark on the capital that her musicality would lead one to expect. The recital she gave at St Giles, Cripplegate, an island of elegance lost in the Barbican’s concrete heartlessness, suggests it won’t be long before she is making a much bigger name for herself.

The programme was intelligently, even adventurously, chosen. Mikelić opened with the Three Sonatinas, Op. 67, by Sibelius, whose substantial corpus of piano music, replete with little gems, pianists have long overlooked. Mikelić is one of the few who has taken this repertoire seriously, to the extent of playing some of it to the UK Sibelius Society in a recital in St John’s, Smith Square, a couple of years ago. The charges levelled against it are generally that it is (a) not as impressive as the orchestral music and (b) orchestrally conceived in any event. But he wasn’t obliged to write towering masterpieces every time he put a pen to paper; and although it’s true that one can often imagine a Sibelian keyboard gesture working more effectively on the orchestra, he’s not the only great composer against whom that reproach can be made. And it is very good music, full of atmosphere and feeling, which Mikelić fully realised, despite a piano that has obviously seen better days. That might account for a touch of over-emphasis here and there, a characteristic she turned to advantage in Beethoven’s A major Sonata, Op. 101, where the bass line was particularly clearly articulated; and her handling of the cumulative energy of the finale was especially well handled. The first half ended with two Debussy preludes – ‘Les collines d’Anacapri’ and ‘Canope’ – and L’isle joyeuse. To play Debussy after Beethoven is to move from substance to sonority: the lack of musical weight strikes this listener; others might reasonably argue that was just what Debussy was trying to do. In any event, Mikelić exhibited impressive technical control: this is music which thrives on clarity and sonority, and she brought it both, making light of its difficulties.

The second half began with a homage to Mikelić’s homeland: two Nocturnes, Op. 50, and the Humoreske, Op. 54, No. 1, by the short-lived Croatian composer Dora Pejacević (1885–1923); you can find an outline, in German, of a project to revive her music at the Frauen Musik Forum,; oddly enough, there appears to be nothing about her on the website of the Croatian Music Information Centre, nor does she qualify for an entry in the new edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, and a search of Grove online was as unsuccessful. The haunting, atmospheric, inward-looking Nocturnes suggest she belongs on that east-European stylistic axis between Chopin and Scriabin, very close to her even shorter-lived Lithuanian contemporary Čiurlionis; the Humoreske, by contrast, offered the stamping, folky humour of a village dance. She is plainly a composer waiting to be (re?)discovered, and I have little doubt that Mikelić will be playing an important part in that process.

In the closing Symphonic Studies of Schumann – the only one of his extended piano pieces that, for me, maintains interest from start to finish – it was clear that Mikelić had the entire architecture of the piece in her head, and she gave it both size and shape, taking on the church’s ungrateful, clattering piano and emerging triumphant. She is plainly a lady to watch.

Martin Anderson

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